Going For Gold | The Katie Ormerod Interview
We caught up with one of Team GB’s brightest medal hopes ahead of the 2018 Olympics
Words by James Renhard | Main image by Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool
“The 2018 Olympic Games have always been a target, so I'm not really feeling too much pressure. I'm just eager to get there." Snowboarder Katie Ormerod repeats the mantra of many-a British sports person ahead of a the biggest event of their respective career. The difference between them and Katie is, I believe her.
On the 11th February, the eyes of the world will be watching Bokwang Snowpark in Pyeonchang as the Snowboard Slopestyle event at the 2018 Olympic Games gets under way. A slightly sleep deprived Great Britain will be looking on, their hopes resting firmly on the shoulders of 19 year old Katie Ormerod.
When Katie spoke to us down a crackly phone line a few months before the Olympics, she sounded focused, she sounded confident but, above all else, she sounded knackered.
"I'm definitely one of the contenders for a medal"
A combination of jet-lag and an intense Olympic qualifying circuit left the already normally reserved Ormerod sounding like she needed to sleep. Unfortunately for her, when you’re not only the best in the country, but among the very best in the world (plus the fact your new energy drink sponsor wants to show you off), the working day lasts a little longer.
“Yeah" confirms Ormerod with a just a hint of nerves hidden in a laugh, “ I'm tired, but it's alright," when I suggest that the jet lag is audible down the phone line.
When Ormerod says the 2018 Olympics have always been a target, she really does mean always. While some athletes at the games will have found their way into their sport via the back door - former sprinters becoming bobsleigh racers, heptathletes who now compete in the skeleton bob - Katie Ormerod has been snowboarding virtually all of her life.
“I started snowboarding when I was five-years-old. My whole family were keen snowboarders, riding on the dry slope up at Halifax. I kept snowboarding there every week, and then started going to the local snowdome. The whole time, I was balancing snowboarding with gymnastics as well, which really helped."
Katie’s cousin and fellow British Olympic slopestyle snowboarder Jamie Nicholls was also a regular at Halifax, so snowboarding ability is obviously in the blood. If the old theory that mastering anything takes 10,000 hours of practice is true, being from as close as these shores have seen to a snowboarding dynasty and having a gymnastic background almost certainly helped to shape Katie into a model competition snowboarder.
It wasn’t long before this talent was noticed, and the GB Park and Pipe team - the people who look after the British freestyle ski and snowboard teams - took an interest. “At 14, I got put in the British team and then I started traveling the world with them, and doing international competitions. I guess I turned pro when I was 16 years old and now I'm going to the Olympics," laughs Ormerod, realising that, when said aloud, it’s been somewhat if a meteoric rise. “Yeah, it’s all fell into place quite nicely. I was trying so hard when I was younger, and it’s all just come together in the end."
"I made sure I learnt my lesson from 2014. It was a big eye-opener"
Maybe it’s modesty, or possibly the jet-lag, but Katie omits a fairly significant event from her timeline. Aged just 16, she made history as the first woman to land a Backside Double Cork 1080 - three full rotations with two off-axis flips, all while flying through the air. It was an incredible milestone, and one that no-one expected a British rider to get to first.
Now aged 19, and armed with an arsenal of tricks, Katie is fulfilling what seems like her destiny - or at least part of it - and heading to her first Olympic games. She was born just one year before snowboarding was introduced as an Olympic sport in Nagano 1998. So unlike those of us old enough to remember cheering on Graham Bell in Lillehammer, for Ormerod, snowboarding has always been an Olympic sport.
“Well, I can't really remember beginning snowboarding because I started so young - it's been my whole life - but I do remember that I'd always wanted to go to the Olympics." admits Ormerod, seemingly free from the very British burden of not wanting to appear too ambitious. “I'm quite a driven person and I've always wanted to go to the Olympics. I've always wanted to make it happen."
This drive almost saw Katie qualify for the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Unfortunately, injury struck, meaning she had to watch Jenny Jones collect Bronze in snowboard slopestyle - Britain's first ever Olympic medal on snow, let alone in snowboarding - from home. To many, it would have been a devastating blow, but Ormerod’s take on missing out on Sochi is surprisingly philosophical.
“I tried to go to the last Olympics in Sochi, and went to all the qualifications but I was really unlucky and got a knee injury just before the games. Nothing went my way but now I'm really glad because now, going in to Pyeongchang, I know what to expect. It is a very full-on experience. You're literally doing a contest in order to qualify. So I made sure I learnt my lesson from 2014. It was a big eye-opener."
It’s a stark display of the mental strength that sets us mere mortals apart from elite athletes. However, following a setback like that, mental fortitude itself is not enough. “I knew I had to get back as soon as possible, so I did the best rehab I could. I was in the gym five times a week, every day, all day for five days."
Katie's dedication clearly paid off. “I came back so much stronger than before, but also so much more driven." the obvious fire in her belly evident, however softly spoken she is. “Then, when I got back on snow, I was so keen to learn new tricks and everything came together so fast. I learnt so many new tricks really quickly. I just kept doing so many repetitions of the tricks, and that changed everything. I've become one of the most consistent slopestyle riders. And now, I go into a contest with good tricks that I know I can land which is the difference between getting on the podium and just finishing middle of the field."
It's this mature approach, prioritising consistency over showboating, that has seen Katie leave the double cork ten in the locker more often than not over the past season.
"It would be a dream come true to get a medal, if not two"
“Even without it, I still feel like I can be a medal contender, and I've been quite tactical because my double ten is not one of my most consistent tricks right now, but I know that my cab 900 (two and a half full rotations while going backwards) is one of my most consistent. It's still a good trick and can get me on the podium so I've just been putting that in my run knowing that it'll get me in the top three."
Somehow I resist the urge to get to my feet and shout “Get in, Katie!" like some pissed football fan in Wetherspoons having seen Deli Ali score a goal against Honduras.
The 2018 Winter Games sees the introduction of snowboard big air to the Olympic roster. It’s an event that sees competitors launch of a single, giant kicker, with the opportunity to do one monster trick.
It also means that Katie has double the opportunity to bring home a medal, as she’s competing in both that and slopestyle. Maybe the excitement had got the better of me, but I couldn’t resist asking Katie about the prospect of bring home a pair of Olympic medals.
“It would be a dream come true, if I get a medal, if not two. That's definitely my aim. I feel like my chances are really good to get a medal." confesses Katie in a tone that oozes a self assured confidence, without ever wandering into arrogance.
“I'm definitely one of the contenders because I got bronze at the Olympic test event big air in 2017, which boosted my confidence knowing that I could get a medal there. And then in slopestyle, I did a test event there and came fourth, but I'm so much more experienced now, and a much better snowboarder. Especially with the X Games medal in slopestyle, it definitely helped boost my confidence. So I think I'm in with a good shot."
I wonder if Katie's meteoric rise - and the realistic expectations now on her shoulders - has brought with it any unwanted pressure to perform? “I haven't really felt any pressure. And I hope it stays like that!" laughs Ormerod, after a beat. “When I go in to a competition, the only thing I think about is 'what run can I do' and on the actual competition day, all I concentrate on is my run. I don't really think about anything else. So no, I don't really feel too much pressure."
On that note, the PR looking after Katie for the day politely interjects to let me know my time with her is up. As I say my goodbyes, and wish Katie luck in the Olympics, I can’t help but feel excited at the prospect of seeing another Briton bringing home a medal. Just talking to her has spiked my adrenaline. Katie, on the other hand, sounded like she was ready for a nap, although I fear the press scrum was just beginning for her.
But it’s clear having spoken to her that Katie Ormerod is going to take all of this in her stride. The training, the competition, the five ringed circus that is the Olympics, and the inevitable media obligations that go along with representing your country. It’s as if she's been training for it all her life. Which, of course, she has.
Britain's head snowboard coach, Hamish McKnight, who's been working with Katie for years once said of Ormerod: “Her love of snowboarding and her work ethic, combined with her gymnastic ability, make her certain to lead a charge in the progression of women's freestyle." Arguably heading into the 2018 Olympic Games, she's already there. For the 19 year-old from Bradford, the time is now.